Thursday, March 05, 2015

The "Apocryphal Urge" in Finding Jesus: A Response to Tony Burke

Over on Apocryphicity, Tony Burke has a characteristically lively discussion of the first episode of the CNN documentary Finding Jesus:

Finding Jesus Episode 1: Giving in to the Apocryphal Urge

Tony argues that the episode "demonstrates the apocryphal urge", by which he means "the temptation to retell stories from early Christian texts, thereby harmonizing disparate accounts and adding new details until a new account is created, sometimes even supplanting the original stories in the minds of readers (or viewers)."

Tony illustrates this "urge" in a variety of ways, citing my voice, Obery Hendricks's voice and the narrator's voice. While I enjoyed Tony's playful post, I would like to draw attention to several phenomena that mitigate his conclusions. The key point is the importance of understanding the medium. TV documentary is not the same medium as the academic lecture, as I am sure Tony himself knows from his experience participating in documentaries like Simcha Jacobovici's recent Biblical Conspiracies: The Lost Gospel, which explores the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene on the basis of a "decoding" of the pseudepigraphical work Joseph and Aseneth.

(1) Harmonization?

Tony suggests that the film "gives in" to the urge to harmonize the Gospels, noting that the film's introductory description of Joseph of Arimathea is drawn from different aspects in the canonical Gospels. It is important, though, to grasp something of the grammar of documentary film. You could in theory tease out what each evangelist says and where they agree and where they disagree. Speaking for myself, that's just the kind of work that I love doing! I write books on that type of thing.

But in a pacy documentary where you only have so much time, you have to find shortcuts while remaining as fair and accurate as possible within those constraints. So what we are looking at is not harmony but summary. And it is impressive that in spite of its use of standard summarizing techniques ("the Gospels say" where several details are combined), the episode still draws attention to specific Gospels. Tony does not mention that the episode regularly draws attention to what a specific Gospel says, including the use of on-screen references.

(2) Embroidering?

Tony suggests that contributors engage in "embroidering" the source material, i.e. adding things that are not in the text:
Series advisor Mark Goodacre says in the episode, “the gospels describe Joseph of Arimathea as being a sympathizer with the Jesus movement. He’s fascinated with Jesus; so fascinated that even after the crucifixion he wants to make sure that the right thing is done, that Jesus gets the right burial.” Goodacre is certainly embroidering here; the Gospels say nothing about Joseph’s “fascination” with Jesus, nor the motives behind his desire for Jesus to get a proper burial.
The idea that Joseph of Arimathea sympathizes with the Jesus movement I draw from the characterization of him as a "disciple of Jesus" in Matt. 27.57 and John 19.38. His fascination with Jesus I infer from this and from the description of his actions in reclaiming Jesus' body and burying it. It is, of course, possible that Joseph was not that interested in Jesus, but that does not seem like as strong an inference from the texts as the one that I am making. The idea that Joseph is trying to do "the right thing" is inferred from Luke's suggestion that he was "righteous".

In other words, there is a difference between "embroidery" (making stuff up) and inference (teasing out what the texts imply).

(3) Influenced by Mel Gibson?

Tony also suggests that my description of the scourging of Jesus in the documentary may have been influenced by The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004). It isn't. It's difficult to know quite how to respond to this except to say that while it is true that I love watching Jesus films more than almost anyone else (OK, also Matt Page and Peter Chattaway), Gibson's film has exercised little influence on my historical imagination.

Incidentally, while Tony suggests that Gibson didn't think he was making stuff up, I'm not sure that's right. Gibson knew he was embroidering (e.g. "I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings" [Interview here].) And chief among those other readings was Anne Catherine Emmerich, which absolutely dominates the film's screenplay.

(4) A flair for the dramatic?

Tony also draws attention to a place in the documentary where I discuss the crown of thorns:
One final point: Goodacre shows a flair for the dramatic when he says “they pressed [the crown of thorns] into his head so that you see blood trickling down his face.” Where do we “see” this? Certainly not in the New Testament Gospels, which only mention the soldiers placing, not pressing, the crown upon Jesus’ head.
I am tempted to be flattered by the idea that I have some dramatic flair! Unfortunately, the context of the comment shows it to be far more mundane. The documentary uses the Turin Shroud as a point of departure for discussing Jesus' Passion, and in the comment Tony quotes I am describing Jesus' passion according to the shroud, where blood trickles down Jesus' face from the presumed crown of thorns. I am, of course, a massive Shroud Sceptic (I know, I'm a horrible sceptic about all these things), but that does not mean that one cannot attempt to understand what it is that the artifact in question is attempting to depict.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Finding Jesus begins tonight on CNN

CNN begins its six part series, Finding Jesus, tonight at 9pm (ET/PT). Here's the series trailer:

And here's a clip from tonight's episode in which Obery Hendricks and I talk about the agony and shame of crucifixion:

I appear in all six episodes of the series and was also series advisor. I have spent quite a lot of time over the last few days doing interviews about the series including twelve on Friday alone! This one (Finding Jesus: New Series Likened to "CSI Jerusalem") was on CBN on Friday afternoon (via Skype):

You'll also see Candida Moss, Obery Hendricks, Ben Witherington III and David Gibson, among others, in tonight's episode, which focuses on the Turin Shroud, and uses the object to reflect on the character of Joseph of Arimathea.

Future episodes also feature Joshua Garroway, Byron McCane (Wofford Professor takes part in CNN documentary series), Nicola Denzey Lewis, April DeConick, Stephen Emmel, Christopher Rollston, Elaine Pagels and many more. Each episode explores the Jesus story by focusing on a particular artifact that is connected in some way with a key character in the story.

I have really enjoyed being involved with the series and I think you'll enjoy viewing it. I hope to comment on each episode as the series progresses, each Sunday night, and Candida Moss and I will be taking it in turns to do a Q and A after each episode airs.

I'll continue to tweet about the series and you can follow Finding Jesus on Facebook.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Killing Jesus -- first look

I've been meaning to blog about this for a while, but there's another Jesus film on the way this spring -- Killing Jesus.  It's adapted from Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book of the same name and airs on National Geographic.  Here's a "first look":

Like most Bible films in recent years it is filmed out in Ouazazarte.  There are some great actors.  Many of them appear to be British, including John Rhys-Davies as Annas.  Kelsey Grammer as King Herod, with loads of hair, should be great too:

The piece is executive produced by Ridley Scott.  Today's Independent features a story about Jesus (Haaz Sleiman):

Killing Jesus: Muslim-raised actor Haaz Sleiman defends lead role in Ridley Scott miniseries

The casting of Sleiman (who once played a baddie in 24) looks like an inspired bit of casting, though I can't help wondering if that's a false beard:

It's one of the great mercies of Jesus of Nazareth that Robert Powell got rid of his false beard and grew one of his own instead.

Update (10 February, 6.20am): Here's Peter Chattaway's comment on his blog in January.

The Nativity (1978)

While teaching Jesus in Film, I realize that there are still several Jesus films that I have not seen.  One of these is a 1978 TV movie from the USA simply called The Nativity.  It is mentioned a couple of times (of course!) on Matt Page's Bible Films blog (here and here) and it has its own IMDb page, but otherwise there is not a lot of coverage of the film online or in the literature.

It has never been released on DVD (ignore the link on the IMDb page -- it's to something else) but it is still possible to get hold of it second hand on VHS -- and I've just ordered a copy.  I'll report back once I've received it and watched it.

There are several features of interest.  One is that it features John Rhys-Davies who is playing Annas in the forthcoming Killing Jesus.  Another is that Leo McKern plays Herod the Great.  I loved McKern as "Number 2" in three episodes of The Prisoner in 1967, though he became more famous for playing Rumpole of the Bailey.  Another great British character actor, Freddie Jones, is also in the cast.

There is a trailer online, one that advertises the video at a whopping $59.99, and this several decades ago!

There is also this great seven second preview from ABC in 1978:

40 years in Biblical Archaeology with Eric and Carol Meyers

The latest Biblical Archaeology Review has a lengthy retrospective on the careers of my Duke colleagues Eric Meyers and Carol Meyers:

Looking Back with Eric and Carol Meyers
Hershel Shanks  (02/09/2015)

It's a great read, especially the discussion of the discovery of the Torah ark from the ancient synagogue at Nabratein in 1981, which Dukies will recognize from the replica that is sitting in the passageway the the entrance of Gray Building.

The article also features the legendary picture of the Meyers dressed in Raiders of the Lost Ark garb for People Magazine in 1981 (left).

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

CNN's Finding Jesus

Beginning on March 1, a new six part documentary series from CNN, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery.  The teaser trailer is now online:

I look forward to chatting about this some more soon!

Spelling mistake in Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988) begins with a quotation from Nikos Kazantzakis, but there is a spelling mistake -- it's the wrong "principle".  It should, of course, be "principal":

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Life of Brian's Parody of the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus Films

The most iconic scene in Life of Brian is, of course, the opening post-credit scene in which Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount to assembled thousands (In Judea. AD 33. Saturday afternoon. At around tea time).  Such is the success of Life of Brian that most of us are now more familiar with the parody than what is being parodied.  Everyone knows Life of Brian but relatively few are familiar with its source material.  As it happens, the scene is even funnier when viewed against the background of the Jesus films of the 1960s and 1970s.

Geoffrey Burgon's score is a superb pastiche of just what one hears at this point in both King of Kings and Greatest Story Ever Told. After shots of the crowds gathering, we have a clear shot of Jesus (Kenneth Colley) silhouetted against a blue sky.  As the camera pans back from Jesus, and as we get further and further away, we hear Jesus less and less distinctly until we arrive at Brian his mother Mandy. Mandy cannot hear a word and shouts, "Speak up!"  Iconic lines follow.  "Blessed are the cheesemakers!"  "Did you hear that? Blessed are the Greek!".

The point of the parody is the depiction of the Sermon on the Mount in the epic Jesus films like King of Kings.  Jesus is speaking to a cast of thousands and it is hardly surprising that people cannot hear:

But if you think it would take a lot of projection to speak to that crowd, compare Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) about to give the Sermon on the Mount in King of Kings:

Jesus is so far in the distance in that shot that you can hardly see him.  Here is a little help:

It is not very different in the Greatest Story Ever Told in which Jesus (Max Von Sydow) gives his sermon to a group of disciples arranged around him in a circle, with a crowd listening at greater distance (imitating Matt. 5.1-2 and 7.28-29), and the vast landscape of Utah visible in the background:

It's not easy imagining being able to hear a word Jesus said from that kind of distance.  But take a look also at the way that Kenneth Colley is presented in close up against the blue sky in Life of Brian:

The similarity with the close-up of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, who is similarly preaching against the backdrop of blue sky, is clear:

The colour in King of Kings is exquisite.  Jesus wears this unusual but rather striking red outer garment only during the Sermon on the Mount sequence in the film, and Ray makes sure to accentuate the contrast with the luscious, cloudless blue sky. 

But this draws to our attention the fact that while there are real similarities between the King of Kings sermon and the Life of Brian sermon that parodies it, there is one quite noticeable difference.  Kenneth Colley in Life of Brian looks nothing like Jeffrey Hunter or Max Von Sydow.  Why is that?  Colley in fact looks similar to Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. And in 1979, when Life of Brian was released, Jesus of Nazareth was a very recent memory.  In fact, as Matt Page reminds us, Life of Brian even used some of the same sets that were used by Jesus of Nazareth out in Tunisia.  

Jesus of Nazareth does not feature a classic Sermon on the Mount scene, though it does repeatedly feature the teaching from the Sermon, and it has one scene in which Jesus gives both the beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer to a gathered multitude relatively late in the production:

The composition here, with its gorgeous oranges and browns, is quite unlike the Life of Brian and King of Kings sermons with their blue sky mountain shots, but Robert Powell's Jesus provides a close analogue to the few seconds we see of Kenneth Colley's Jesus.  Here is Colley:

His long dark hair and beard, and the arrangement of his garments is just like Powell's:

The sermon in Life of Brian thus parodies not only the scope and grandeur of King of Kings and Greatest Story, but also the very look of the Jesus most familiar to viewers in the late 1970s, Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth.

If you need a refresher, here is the scene from Life of Brian:


Friday, January 30, 2015

Life of Brian on Celluloid Jesus

I've been gradually adding pages to my Celluloid Jesus web pages and the latest additions are Jesus of Nazareth (yesterday) and now also Life of Brian:

Celluloid Jesus: Life of Brian

Among other things, I've linked to James Crossley's excellent "Life of Brian or Life of Jesus?" and all the footage of the Jesus and Brian Conference at King's College, London in June -- one of the academic highlights of last summer:

There are hours of entertainment there, with Richard Burridge interviewing Terry Jones and John Cleese, and papers by, among others, Paula Fredriksen, Helen Bond, Bart Ehrman, A. J. Levine, James Crossley, Philip Davies, Steve Mason.

I've also added a link to Sarah Prime's article in Marginalia that reflects on the conference.

As usual on this site, I end with my video guide, answering the question, "Where can I get hold of . . . .?"

I have certainly missed things, so please comment either here or there on things you'd like to see added.

Meanwhile, I have another blog post on the way soon about Life of Brian.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Zeffirelli's use of Light and Windows in Jesus of Nazareth

I have fallen in love anew with Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth over the last week or so as I have watched and re-watched it.  There are so many things to love about the film.  One of them is Olivia Hussey's portrayal of Mary, which is so moving that it is enough to make one want to convert to Catholicism.  Hussey herself was 26 years old when she played Mary and unlike other several other Jesus films, she plays Mary both as the teenage bride and the older, agonized mother grieving at the cross.

The Annunciation is one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film, not only because of Hussey's portrayal of an initially confused but ultimately devoted young woman, but also because of the striking choice not to have an actor playing the angel Gabriel.  Indeed the name "Gabriel" is not even mentioned and the viewer sees Mary as her mother Anna sees her -- it is one half of a conversation in front of light that is pouring in through the window.

Mary awakes at the sound of the window opening, and the light pouring in, and in a point-of-view shot, Mary looks up to see the window:

As she stands before the window, she converses with the angel, but the viewer, like Anna, sees only one half of the conversation:

And ultimately, Mary kneels in obedience to the angel's message in front of the window:

Here is a clip of the scene:


This motif, of light pouring through windows of a building in which a divine encounter takes place, occurs on several occasions in the film, including the raising of Jairus's daughter.  Jesus goes into the young girl's room alone (and not with Peter, James and John and the girls' parents as in Mark 5.40), and light is streaming in the window as Jesus crouches to heal the young girl.

Jesus speaks the words Talitha Cumi (Mark 5.41) and the girl rises.  The picture is beautifully composed with light coming in all three windows, and Jesus and Jairus's daughter either side of the middle window:

Incidentally, when the girl is hugged by Jesus, we have a rare shot of Robert Powell smiling with his eyes closed:

The same three-window motif occurs again when Jesus is teaching in the temple (in a scene that is only in the full, over six hour version, and not the abridged version currently found on Netflix):

Jesus is teaching in the temple while a large crowds sits, gazing in wonder, and Zerah (Ian Holm) watches from the sidelines.  The dialogue itself is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, Jesus of Nazareth, like most Jesus films breaks up the sermon, relocates it and redistributes a lot of its material.  In a tracking shot, the camera shows Jesus teaching with light streaming in three high windows.

Here is a clip of the piece:


One might also include here one of the films most iconic moments, when Pontius Pilate (Rod Steiger) sees Jesus emerging from the light in his doorway -- Ecce Homo:

Pilate is arrested by the sight of the man in the crown of thorns who has now approached him: